A Comprehensive Look at Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Oncology Today

For decades, the term “alternative medicine” was used to describe a wide range of medical practices and therapies outside of conventional or mainstream healthcare. As the name suggests, alternative medicine was commonly presented as an either/or proposition. When someone was looking for treatment of any kind, they either went the traditional route or the alternative route. And for many people, alternative medicine seemed like the risky choice – so much of it was untested, unproven, and unknown. But all this has changed with a relatively new entry into the medical lexicon – CAM – Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This isn’t just a rebranding of the old label. Instead, it’s a complete overhaul in the way we think about and use alternative medicine, therapies, procedures, and preventative measures. CAM is no longer seen as a substitution for conventional medicine. Instead, things like massage therapy, herbal remedies, repurposed medicines, and mindfulness are being used to enhance the effectiveness of conventional treatments and/or minimize their side effects. And all of this has led to an absolute surge in CAM popularity. 


Growing Popularity of CAM in the US and Around the World


As the use of CAM continues to grow, so does the research surrounding it and we are starting to get a clearer picture of just how many people are using CAM and why. A survey conducted by the National Institute of Health found that in the United States, approximately 38% of adults and 12% of children use some form of CAM as part of their treatment plan. The use of CAM seems to be higher among women, older adults, and people with higher levels of education and income. People with chronic health conditions, such as arthritis, cancer, and back pain, are also more likely to use CAM to manage their symptoms. And perhaps the largest number of all – Americans now spend upwards of 32 billion dollars a year on out-of-pocket complementary health approaches. 


The Use of CAM Among Cancer Patients


According to a 2020 study published in JAMA Oncology, about 57% of adult cancer patients in the United States reported using at least one form of CAM in the past year. Many studies suggest the actual number is even higher, with many patients not reporting their CAM use. According to another study published in 2021, the most commonly used CAM therapies among cancer patients in the United States are herbal and natural products, followed by mind-body therapies and manipulative and body-based practices. Interestingly, cancer patients who use CAM generally report not being dissatisfied with their conventional treatments. (Which explains why they are using them in conjunction with their treatment regimen rather than in lieu of.) Instead, they tend to find these alternative methods to be more congruent with their own values, beliefs, and philosophical attitudes toward health and life. Some patients are looking to ease the psychological effects of their cancer diagnosis. Others, facing a grim diagnosis, are willing to try any available options in the hopes of improving their quality of life.   


Medical Professionals’ Attitudes towards CAM


A 15-year comprehensive study was conducted that looked at the prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine across ten medical specialties. What the study found was somewhat contradictory – but it does give us insight into where the mainstream medical community stands when it comes to CAM. The study found that CAM is actually extremely popular throughout the world. 32 countries were studied, with a prevalence of CAM ranging from 25.9% to as high as 53.3% percent. And of the patients using CAM, satisfaction rates were around 70% overall. In terms of the medical community, most physicians who used CAM were pleased with the results and were more likely to recommend it to patients, friends, and family as a non-toxic treatment option. But here’s where it gets tricky – less than one-third of the medical doctors in the study were very comfortable answering questions about CAM. Whatsmore, many doctors are still skeptical of CAM because they feel they lack specific knowledge or qualifications as well as a lack of evidence from high-quality experimental studies on the efficacy of CAM treatments. And then there are the patients themselves. Despite how widespread and well-liked we know CAM to be among patients, this isn’t always being communicated to their doctors. In some ways, the problem is cyclical. Physicians are reluctant to suggest alternative treatments to their patients and so when the patients seek out these treatments independently, they do not always disclose this to their healthcare providers out of fear of judgment or retribution. This knowledge gap can, at the very least, decrease the efficacy of alternative treatments. In extreme cases, patients run the risk of unknowingly having their alternative supplements interact negatively with their conventional treatment plan.


Importance of Open Communication about CAM Use


How can the medical establishment most effectively maximize the C in CAM? The answer clearly lies in open patient-provider communication. And that involves investing energy in bringing CAM even more into the mainstream than it already is. The good news is, the medical community is headed in the right direction. More and more physicians are acknowledging the immense benefits of adding alternative approaches to a patient’s treatment regimen. They are emboldened to suggest, among other things, herbal remedies, nutritional supplements, and mental health treatments. And entire medical systems are getting on board. According to the  American Hospital Association, at least 42% of hospitals now have some sort of integrative medicine unit on the premises. The oncology community in particular, where CAM has yielded so many successes, is coming around to the role of CAM in a holistic approach to treatment. It is no surprise that in medical environments where patients report an open, non-judgmental relationship with their physician; where they feel they are being treated as a “whole person”, instances of CAM use are much higher. 


If you or your loved one are considering adding a CAM therapy to your/their current cancer treatment plan and do not feel comfortable seeking out answers from your current doctor, now might be the time to consider integrative oncology, which specifically embraces evidenced-based CAM therapies as an integral part of patient care. In the last decade or so, integrative oncology has become a well-established field of medicine, recognized by major cancer centers and medical organizations as an important aspect of cancer care. Integrative oncologists are much more likely to approach cancer treatment from a patient-based perspective, treating not only the physical symptoms of the disease but also the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects as well.

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